"Songs are like tattoos...
...ink on a pin
underneath the skin
an empty space to fill in"
That's Joni Mitchell, and the same applies to poetry. There needs to be music there, behind the words, something that gets under the skin.
Joni is not in this volume. No songwriters are in this volume. No women under age 50 are in this volume.
So..."essential"? "the greatest"? There is good, even great, poetry here, but much of it has no music for me. To paraphrase Nicholson Baker, some is just good or interesting prose broken up into lines to look like poetry. And occasionally not even good or interesting prose.
The editors seem to have chosen by accolade. The poets are well-known in the Poetry World. They have won awards. They are Recognized. I'm not a big fan of "best" (or here, essential, with greatest as the subtitle) as a classifying theme anyway. We change. They change. The world, our lives, change constantly. We, and they, are also products of our times.
These are "Some Well-Regarded Female Poets Born Between 1830 and 1955", no more than that.
Parisi and Welton give a brief biography of each woman, and there's no shortage of interesting lives. Sometimes, in fact, the lives are more interesting than the writing. I also had a problem with the way the editors presented the information--often it disintegrates from lives lived into lists of awards and honors and publications. And the continuous use of, for lack of a better term, flowery language, in each poet's introduction, bothered me as well. I'm all for increasing vocabulary, but here unusual words are so pervasive and noticeable they distract from what is being said. It sounds like showing off and takes the focus off the subject, where it belongs.
Criticisms aside, a lot of this poetry is worth a look--Emily Dickinson, Dorothy Parker, Ruth Stone, Mary Oliver (also mentioned with admiration by Nicholson Baker in "The Anthologist"), Lisel Mueller, Jane Kenyon, Kay Ryan, and--who knew?--Louise Erdrich were among my favorites.
It's a sampling, and the reader can choose who speaks to them, who they feel deserves a futher, deeper look. But the presentation, from title onward, could have been much much better.